Talking Heads in Space

As mentioned, I’m working through an editing pass on Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. It’s mostly solid at this point. (This is why I have to let drafts rest for a while before I start editing. I always set them aside convinced they’re utter rubbish and then when I look at them again, I’m surprised at how not-horrifyingly-embarrassing they are. It’s a nice surprise.)

There is, however, one thing that keeps cropping up, over and over again, a little problem I like to call Talking Heads in Space.

I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of scenes before (especially if you’re one of my beta readers). The scene opens and two characters are having a conversation. And… that is all. There is no sense of the setting, or what is going on around them. There are no other people in this closed universe in which they chat. They aren’t doing anything. Heck, the only actions we have are nodding and sighing and laughing and eye rolling. All head stuff. They are two heads, talking in the blank vacuum of space.

And Blood and Ebony is, unfortunately, full of them. The book has a lot of interrogations in it, which tend to seem less like interrogations and more like boring, vaguely frustrating conversations between two people who don’t really like each other and can’t seem to get to the point.

This is a problem.

Talking heads in space is boring. In a lot of ways, it’s a glorified info dump in chit-chat form, disconnected from the rest of the plot. And that is lame-sauce. A lot of my edits for this book have focused on these scenes.

So how does one fix up a Talking Heads in Space scene?

Scenery These characters are talking somewhere, right? Even if you’re writing a space opera and these characters are legit chatting in the vacuum of space, the vacuum is not empty—far from it. So build up the scenery a bit. Where is this conversation taking place? What’s happening around them? If this scene was in a movie, what would the props guy put up around them. Be the props guy!

Consequences from the Past Character conversations must be informed by what the character has already experienced. So think about what has already happened in the book and how it would carry consequences into this scene. Maybe the characters were arguing the last time they spoke and so now they’re sulking. Maybe Character A ruptured a bursa earlier in the story and she spends the scene crankily massaging her still-sore knee. Maybe she’s worried about revealing too much information because she saw Character B talking to Character C and is worried that B is a traitor. Maybe she should be thinking about these things throughout the conversation. *strokes chin thoughtfully* Maybe.

Consequences for the Future Much like consequences from the past, make sure that each conversation knits into the rest of the story. No conversation should be there just because you really wanted a tense scene, or a funny scene, or a whatever scene. Every scene needs to have consequences for the future of the book. It must move the plot forward in meaningful ways.

Sensory Details This is closely related to adding scenery, but specifically from the perspective of the point of view character and going a little deeper than you would in a movie scene. What smells does the character pick up? What colors are there and what do they remind the character of? Any distracting background noises? Any tastes? Textures of the seats? Blisters in the shoes? The waistband feeling a little tighter than it used to? Adding these details will change the perspective of the reader from outsider-looking-in to benign-undetectable-brain-parasite-looking out.

Inner Workings Another detail that will help your reader inhabit the characters’ worlds and minds is a glimpse of the characters’ inner workings. What is your character thinking throughout the scene? How are they processing their verbal combatant’s quips and insults? How do they handle a confession of love? How hard is it to stifle their desperate hunger and have a coherent conversation when they haven’t eaten in two days and can’t stop smelling the burger joint next door? Let readers know the innermost thoughts and emotions of your characters to help shift us from a talking head to a working whole.

Adding details like these grabs those talking heads right out of space and puts them on top of bodies which are a part of the world around them. It plops those conversations in the midst of a time-space continuum between the past and the future, where the characters were and where they’re going.

So now that I’ve worked out what needs doing, I’d better get to doing it. Blood and Ebony is due to readers this weekend and if I don’t finish on time—*gulp*—musicals. I’ll let you know how it shakes out next week. Until then, happy writing!

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